What is Given From the Heart
(The title and some recurring lines are rooted in the book,
What is Given from the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack, Illustrated by April Harrison.)

A message delivered March 1, 2020
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, California

At Christmas, in my family, all eight kids and two parents each gave every other person a gift. That meant at least 90 presents crowded under the Christmas tree in our living room on Christmas morning. We opened those gifts one at a time, oohing and ahhing at the thoughtfulness, the creativity, the artistry, and/or the sense of humor. Almost all of the gifts were homemade every year, in part, because that was what we could afford, but also because making those personal gifts was an important part of each gift – given from the heart, reaching the heart.

My youngest sister was only about three years old when she saw all of us in our separate places busily making and wrapping gifts before Christmas, and she did not want to miss out on the action, she did not want to miss out on the giving. So, she went to the toy box and chose pieces of toys to wrap, which meant sort of crumpling a piece of paper around them. She chose just single pieces: One checker. One very chewed up, gray, plastic brontosaurus. The smooth beige ear or the bright red shiny lips of Mr. Potato Head. At the age of 3, she was onto the joy of giving. She could feel it in us, and in herself – from the heart, reaching the heart.

[Holding up a piece of wood] This is the gift one of my younger brothers made for me one Christmas. He went out to the woodpile, grabbed this rough-sawn “Y” destined for our wood stove, glued a carefully cut out piece of red felt on the bottom, and drilled six holes in the side to make…a pencil holder. It is my favorite pencil holder – given from the heart, reaching the heart.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of a very similar spirit in her family, with their similarly homemade gifts. As a child, she writes, she “thought that was the definition of a gift: something you made for someone else (24).” Writing of her family and reflecting on the earth’s abundant annual gift of wild strawberries, she explains that she “experienced the world . . . as a gift economy,” pointing out that “gifts establish a particular relationship between people,” a “feeling-bond between two people” (quoting Lewis Hyde). Comparing gifts to things that we purchase, she writes, “The nature of an object . . . is so changed by the way it has come into your hands.” Unlike most purchased objects, which lose value the moment one buys them, gifts “move, and their value increases with their passage.”

There is an often-told story about the origin of money. It goes something like this:
(Rooted in Bill Maurer’s interview with Shankar Vedantam on “Hidden Brain.”)

In the beginning, there was no money, only a formless void.

On the first day, someone who had a lot of fish and who wanted acorns, but who had no acorns, went to sleep disappointed.

On the second day, that person met a person who had lots of acorns and who wanted fish, but who had no fish. They both went to sleep disappointed, but thoughtful.

On the third day, the two people figured out that they had a “double coincidence of wants,” and so bartering was born, and they deciding together how many fish were worth how many acorns, and they traded and went to sleep happy and well fed.

On the fourth day, the two people encountered a third person who had lots of strawberries, but who was allergic to both fish and acorns. The first two people so wanted some strawberries, but had only fish and acorns to barter. They all went to sleep feeling frustrated.

On the fifth day, after a night of vivid dreams, they held a long brainstorming session, during which the three people invented …money, which they decided should look like a fancy shell, or a stone with special markings. And the person with the fish and the person with the acorn traded a shell and a stone, respectively, for strawberries, and the third person took the shell and the stone with them, to trade for what they really wanted.

On the sixth day, they each convinced a few more people to go along with this whole idea.

And on the seventh day, …they each went shopping.*
  (*Jordan Thomas-Rose’s addition)

As Bill Maurer puts it, the traditional story says that “humans wizard up . . .this magical substance that can put all things on one scale of value, and [they] use that as sort of their measuring stick, then, to make . . . transactions” of many kinds, for all those times when people don’t just happen to have a double coincidence of wants.

But, Maurer says, there is a problem with this story.
Direct barter is not to be found around the world or in the archeological record.

“What we find instead,” he told Shankar Vedantam on the Hidden Brain podcast, “are systems where people are taking some kind of object – . . . [like] a big shell – and using it to mark relationships . . . among people… [They] serve as a kind of indicator of enduring obligations that people have to one another. It’s …like an open-ended IOU.”

He puts it this way:

“If I give you this big shell thing, then that implies for us, but also for everyone around us, that we have a bond. We have a relationship that will essentially allow us to have a flow of goods between each other and between our families for the rest of our lives, essentially.

     So, it’s not so much that I’m giving you this shell so that you give me some pigs. It’s I’m giving you this shell so as to say, hey, someday I’m going to need some pigs. Some other day, I might need your help in the field. Some other day, you might need me to help you out with something.

     This shell . . . marks that relationship. It signifies to everyone around us that we have these ties of enduring obligation and responsibility.”

As we enter this annual Stewardship campaign – “stewardship” from an Old English word meaning “keeper of the hall” – I invite you to think about money not as a tool for shopping and purchasing what you want here, but rather as the big shell that you offer to signify, to yourself and to others, your enduring relationship with this community.

In our tradition, congregation members are Member-Owners. This is your religion co-op. You aren’t buying something with your pledge of time, of talent, and of treasure, you are signifying and investing in a relationship for the long haul.

There’s a clever slogan used when asking people for financial donations. It is, “Don’t give until hit hurts, go beyond that, give until it feels good.”

But what’s underneath that truth-based slogan is a deeper message, “Don’t give until it hurts. Give until it helps.” Until it helps you, until it helps the cause of the congregation’s mission, until it does both of those things by deepening your sense of relationship to this community and what it values.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, again:

“If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow.
When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become (31).”

This year I invite you to give until it helps, until you know yourself deeply connected, until what is given from the heart reaches the heart, your own heart first of all.

I invite you to give until you are wealthy.

So may we be.

Works Consulted, Works Cited

Kimmerer, Robin W. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013. Print.

Mckissack, Patricia C. What Is Given from the Heart. New York: Random House USA Inc, 2019. Print.

Vedantam, Shankar, host. “Emotional Currency: How Money Shapes Relationships.” Hidden Brain, NPR, 13 January, 2020.  www.npr.org/transcripts/795246685